The US is using less energy and emitting less carbon dioxide per dollar of GDP than ever before, according to the latest data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). This is not a short-term trend: America will continue to become more efficient through 2040.
Energy intensity, or the amount of energy we use to create one dollar of GDP, has plummeted 58 percent between 1949 and 2011. Even more impressive is the 66 percent decrease in carbon intensity, or the amount of carbon emitted per real dollar of GDP. In other words, we’re wringing more production out of the energy we use, and doing so with less environmental impact.
These improvements are what greens miss when they call for Americans to make painful, costly cutbacks on energy usage. Energy and carbon intensity continue their steady march downward, and the declines are occurring across all sectors: commercial, industrial, residential, and transportation intensity indices are all projected to fall.
This reflects two broad trends. First, the US has access to technology that, motivated by the capitalist need to produce more with less, has made our industries more efficient. And second, the US is transitioning to a post-industrial economy, relying less and less on heavy industry to drive growth.
This data underscores the fact that economic growth and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive ideas. Smart, efficient growth can bring more people out of poverty, raise our standard of living, and help us live within the boundaries nature has set out for us. If greens want to save the earth, they should heed what these graphs are telling us. Growth is getting greener by the day.